Cossacks proud to take stage at Sochi Games

Thu Feb 13, 2014 11:18am EST
 
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By Mark Trevelyan

ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - For centuries they were the free men of the Russian steppe - conquerors of Siberia, defenders of the empire's frontiers and guardians of a warrior culture that to this day is celebrated in legend and song.

At the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Cossacks are restricted to more prosaic duties: 500 have been deployed to work with police, mainly patrolling streets and stations on the lookout for troublemakers and drunks.

For the beefy figures in grey uniforms and shaggy black wool hats, the cameo role marks one more stage in a vigorous Cossack resurgence since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"This is an event on a planetary scale: the Winter Olympics are taking place in Russia for the first time," declared Valery Yefremov, deputy ataman (leader) of the 44,000 Cossacks of the Kuban region of southern Russia, which includes Sochi.

"The fact that the Kuban Cossacks are entrusted, together with the police, with serving here and protecting the security of Olympic guests is for us the very highest peak of our service to the Russian state," he told Reuters in an interview in Rosa Khutor, gateway to the snow-sports venues.

BROTHERS-IN-ARMS

For the 22 Cossacks assigned up here, each day begins with a 9 a.m. police briefing next to a multi-storey car park. Lined up in three rows, they listen intently, occasionally turning to clear their throats and spit, as buses roll by up the mountain.

Each wears a grey top with leather straps, black trousers with a red stripe, and the distinctive woolly hat called a papakha, topped with a cross denoting their Orthodox Christian faith.   Continued...

 
A Cossack in traditional attire walks in downtown Rosa Khutor during the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games, February 13, 2014. REUTERS/Michael Dalder